What are the political potentials of listening? How does sound define the crossing of the territories of contemporaneity, of the differences in race, gender, social belonging? How can we, in the invisible depth of sound, define our belonging to the contemporary world, taking an active position in issues that concern ethics, subjectivity, the principles of collective and individual living? After attempting to define a series of possible philosophical and post-phenomenological approaches to sound art in the previous two books – Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum, 2010), and Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound (Bloomsbury, 2014) – the Swiss writer and artist Salomé Voegelin continues her analysis on listening practices, in a new book entitled The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening (Bloomsbury) whose themes juxtapose and which reflects on the encounter between political processes and the sounds we are constantly immersed in.
Against the background of a perspective in which a strong disciplinary autonomy of sound studies is claimed, the author traces a path which not only highlights aesthetic meanings, but also social and political meanings related to listening, understood as a generative and participatory practice that is never pre-determined, but built in the making through the suspension of any idea of gender, context, theory and purpose. Framing the relationship between subjectivity and sound objects through the filter of politics, Salomé Voegelin analyzes listening strategies and methods through which we can relate to the most disparate sound artifacts, from works of sound art to soundscapes, from acoustic environments to music, such as fragments “to hear their possibilities and develop words for what appears impossible.”
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Salomé, focused on several of her ideas expressed in the book but also developed in her practice as a sound artist, revealing that sound is a critical device that helps unveil the invisible in the world, opening up different spaces, different visions and different approaches to our experiences of it.
Leandro Pisano: From Listening to Noise and Silence and Sonic Possible Worlds, to The Political Possibility of Sound, how has your research and perspective on sound and listening changed over the years?
Salomé Voegelin: I see those three books as closely related and as creating a narrative together and between each other. This narrative is not entirely linear or simply moving forwards. Rather there are detours and ruminations that open new avenues of listening and thinking, and there are also disagreements and even contradictions within and between the books.
I like how your question gives me the opportunity to reflect on their relationship, and also on how in the ten years since publishing the first one my own perspective but also the context and focus of sound art and sound studies, its themes and methods, have developed and transformed. That is very exciting. Sound and sonic thinking has really gained ground in how we engage with things, how we know the world not only visually but increasingly also by its sound.
There are always four years between each book, this is not planed but a total coincidence, which however seems to suggest that this is the time it takes me to rethink and reconsider the previous work and develop the need and scope for a new articulation. However, I do not actually think that my thinking and research has changed dramatically. It feels more like a slow but steady development from an initial engagement with sound as material in its artistic expression, to a consideration of sound arts’ expressions in relation to the knowledge as well as the political and social imaginary and consciousness they create. I feel my writing has become more expansive and inclusive of non-sonic themes. Thanks to a growing number of writings about sound that expand its thinking, my own has become more confident to discuss philosophical, social and political ideas with sonic concepts. And so in The Political Possibility of Sound, I make explicit arguments for a sonic politics and imaginary where I might be more suggestive and ambiguous in the first book.
Leandro Pisano: One of the main topics emerging from this book is that there are unspoken possibilities to use sound (art) to produce and evoke political concepts. How much is this topic still unexplored in contemporary literature and artistic practices?
Salomé Voegelin: In confirmation of my response to your last question, I think sound arts’ discourse and sound studies, which are by no means the same thing, as well as writing about music in its broadest sense, have over the last decade increasingly moved towards considering social and political themes. If you think of Brandon La Belle’s Sonic Agency, Nina Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound, Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Colour Line, Benjamin Tausig’s Bangkog is Ringing or Ana Marcia Ochoa Gautier’s Aurality, and many more, there is a clear desire and concern to consider the political, race and gender, as well as sexuality, normativity and power through a sonic lense. There is also, within post-colonial studies and in ongoing efforts at decolonialisation, a recognition of sound as a useful tool and strategy. To work for example with oral history to pluralise seemingly singular historical facts from sonic experiences, or to debate listening as a political complex of selective auditions and purposeful not hearing. The political possibilities and concepts of sound are being used to find new truths and articulations about how the world is in its simultaneous and asymmetrical plurality. And with the increasing sonico-social awareness and thinking that these publications and practices evoke, I hope, will also come greater expectations of how in political institutions and policy making difference and diversity gain their voices.
But there is always scope for more discussions and strategies of how sound as a material and sonic thinking can disrupt normative hierarchies and discrimination. Therefore, most importantly, the discussions must remain self-critical, evolving and fluid in order not to, in their own way, produce a canon and norms that are exclusive, have blindspots and inevitably fail at the threshold of their own norm. Whenever you write there is something you do not write, that you inevitably exclude, ignore. Texts introduce new ideas but also always already set up boundaries towards the unsaid and unmentioned at the edge of what their language can say. The only way towards real plurality and inclusivity is to keep on writing and to avoid canonisation and exclusivity of reading.
Leandro Pisano: The perspective you have developed in this book deals with the “complexity of the ephemeral” at the intersection of different registers: political, philosophical, cultural. How do you deal with this idea of ephemerality, considering that sound is also a vector of materiality?
Salomé Voegelin: Sound is ephemeral not in the sense of flimsy or insubstantial. Instead, it is ephemeral in the sense of a strong presence that remains invisible and therefore formless within a visual orientation. Sound is not “this” or “that”, the chair or the table, the political or the philosophical, the cultural or the social. Instead, it is what we hear between these things and institutions, where they meet in their interaction as formless forms. The imagination of things in their correleate formlessness can help us discuss not just what they are, inevitably evoking norms and habits, but what they do together, at an always contingent intersection, where as indivisible concepts they overlap and are dependent on each other in a present tense. And so it is exactly sound’s materiality as the ephemeral materiality of the in-between – that is not you or me, but what we sound together – that allows us to rethink what we think we are and mean, our values and subjectivities. And from there it can help us rethink what things mean and what they do, beyond an established expectation and prejudice, based on their name and referential autonomy as separate things, but as generated contingently in the in-between. This focuses perception not on the material, on what meets, but the way it does so, its ephemeral constitution, and provides the ground for an imagination of how it could meet differently.
Leandro Pisano: Talking more about the materiality of sound and materialism, you have written that «the current debate on new materialism [is] developing via sound and listening to the idea of materialism as a materialism of transformation that reconsiders an anthropocentric worldview without bestowing objects with mythical self-determination». How important are sound and listening practices in developing possibilities to «hear echoes of responsibility in animate and inanimate things»?
Salomé Voegelin: The debate about how we are and how we are real with and in relation to the material world rather than its representation, are very present and important, particularly given the issues of social exclusion and the climate emergency we are faced with.
I understand sound, exactly because of its formless in-between nature, which I discuss in answer to your last question, to make an important contribution to how we can think about the world and ourselves in this world, away from a hierarchical and anthropocentric reality as a co-dependent cosmos instead. I have written about a sonic materialism in both Sonic Possible Worlds and in The Political Possibility of Sound, arguing for a sonic sensibility to take part in the speculation of the real. In my most recent book I make a clear distinction between what I term a masculine new materialism, that speculates on the nature of the real from afar and through the space of objectivity as distance and via flat ontologies, and a feminine new materialism, that is engaged in objectivity as responsibility and tries to acknowledge a different relationship between human and non-human things from its intra-actions. I align my thinking and ambitons with the latter, and articulate sound as a feminine new materialist strategy and consciousness that re-imagine the world from the in-between and in interactions that we are part of in sound making and listening and which produce the truth of the mobile and the inaudible simultaneity of interbeing that cannot be observed from a distance but has to be generated in the encounter, in a practical philosophy. It is, as Rosie Braidotti suggests, a philosophy of gardening, and as such a practice-based philosophy sonic new materialism has the potential to contribute a new attitude and thinking to social, ecological and political issues.
In that sense New Materialism, as a philosophical consideration of how we gain access to and understand the material world and ourselves living in this world, stops being a philosophical quietism, and becomes a guideline to a loud thinking and action. Therefore my investment in new materialism through sound is political, and is a form of activism rather than a simple philosophical discoursiveness.
In this context I evoke Eliane Radique’s work Naldjorlak, composed with Charles Curtis, but without words or a score, as a form of sonic new materialism of reciprocity, interbeing of composer and interpreter, of instrument and player, and more generally of sound and listener. This is a composition of correlation and interaction that brings us to a different moment of being with the material world, as a material of doing philosophy rather than thinking it.
Leandro Pisano: Why do you think that questioning the way we think about the relationship between sound, politics and art can be a relevant issue in the contemporary era in which we are immersed?
Salomé Voegelin: Art in general and Sound Arts in the particular provoke re-orientations. Relying here on Sara Ahmed’s idea of subjectivity as a matter of orientations – of how we face the world – art has the potential to disrupt or suspend a habitual point of view, to make us aware of its normativity and shift and twist its focus. Art and sound can alert us to a conventional orientation, how we tend to look and therefore what we tend to see and take as norm and singularly real. It can make us look again, change our viewpoint and orientation to see things differently, more expansively, and to experience our looking in a different sense. Sound amplifies this re-orientation process because it lacks the seeming stability of the looked at in the first place. Every sonic orientation, when it is not focused on the “sound of…”, on semantic cues or a musical language and expectation, is a re-orientation: the finding and generating rather than recognising of a point of view. Its manifestation in invisible in-betweens and as interbeing demands an active orientation that always involves an awareness of my own position and understands the ideology of the way I face. It grasps that how I listen becomes what I hear, and understands that what I hear includes me in its sonic in-between. I am not at a distance, but part of the indivisible volume of sound: the formless expanse in which my sound meets yours and indivisibly forms what we are together and of each other.
In that sense sound creates an insecurity about what I hear, and triggers a heightened awareness of my own part in its production. This is a political position and positioning that I believe serves us well to rethink the norms, habits and conventional orientations that are responsible for much of the socio-political, economic and ecological problems we find ourselves facing at the moment. From the neo-liberal focus on consumption and ownership, the concomitant issues of ecological disaster, social asymmetries, race, gender and sexual hatred and discrimination, all are based on a sense of distance, the possibility to other, to own, to know and to use without being implicated or responsible.
A sonic re-orientation unpacks this visuo-cultural illusion of distance in favour of an invisible world that might seem unreal and ephemeral in the terms of an objective world, but whose sonic fiction provides new and radical ways to complexify the illusion of a singular and inevitable truth through the acknowledgement of a responsible interbeing. And so, to go back to your question more directly, the conflation and thinking of art, politics and sound in their in-betweenness invests us with the knowledge and experience to think different questions and different solutions to how we live together and how this living together could be governed.
Leandro Pisano: Some years ago, you wrote: «a new generation of field recordists is challenging the myth of the invisible figure, using the microphone in a work that celebrates presence rather than absence». Do you see this change happening more and more often in contemporary sound art practices?
Salomé Voegelin: Definitively, I think artists working with field recording have become very aware of their own position. It seems inevitable now and almost inconceivable to do fieldwork that pretends a “natural” position. The recordist is not only there, technologically enabled and creating the field and the recording through their presence; this presence is also gendered, racial, temporally and socially particular: generating the field from their being as an orientated and political subjectivity. The recordist is with and of the field, and brings their interbeing to the recording process. In a sense there is no field recording without it being a recording of the between of recordist, technology and field. And thus the term field recording is maybe a misname. Maybe we should term it a recording of the in-between, or a recording of the reciprocal and indivisible volume of sound?
There is much interesting work that plays with this position and invites through the question of the sonic field a more general enquiry about being in the world, in terms of reality, responsibility and authorship, as well as subjectivity and power. These debates and practices of the field meet the discussion on new materialism engaged with earlier on in an interesting way. I think here for example of Mark Peter Wright’s work I Thing in the Margins, where dressed as an overgrown fluffy shotgun mic he walks through the field, painfully aware of his clumsy domination, his noise that breaks the signal og nature while capturing it.
Leandro Pisano: At the beginning of chapter 4, you wrote: «A geography of sound has no maps; it produces no cartography. It is a geography of encounters, misses, happenstance and events». A couple of years ago, you visited our project, Liminaria, in rural Southern Italy. How would you talk about geography of sound in a rural context? How is it possible to define it?
Salomé Voegelin: I am interested in geography and cartography of the urban and the rural and their relationship. Cartography, as the mapping of these geographies is a military invention. It dictates how we delimit, draw and represent space, and thus how we make it thinkable and imaginable. A map freezes the performance of space as timespace in one possible representation which through this singular imagining becomes actual. This representation of a temporal and voluminous world in lines and dots, on a 2-dimensional map, enables conquest and the control of land. It provides clarity of where we are, and it produces the definition of the other and where they are. This is particularly apparent when we leave the dense street maps of the city, where we might forget this military aim and only see our own. In and urban environment, on first glance, the map seems legitimate as it presents a constructed environment through a constructed metric. Of course it is not, but let’s leave this to one side for now. But, once we leave the densely constructed space of the city, doubt sets in about the veracity of the cartographic transcription and its mechanism. The stretches of nothing with smaller dots of human habitation make me wonder about the reality of what I see and the agency of its lines. It is the mapping of woods, of the sea, of fields, that makes me reflect on maps in a more focused way: the rural mapped reveals the infrastructure of mapping to a critical gaze.
Coming to do the residency as part of Liminaria in Guardia Sanframondi was a very important experience in this regard. I could see the village on my google map, I could follow its lines, but I still did not know where I was or how to inhabit this place. And so together with my collaborator David Mollin we composed A Cartography of Knuckles and Fingeripts, a work that maps Guardia Sanframondi through walking and sounding its terrain and material form the invisible contact between fingers, walls, skin, and pavements knuckles and metal posts. The work does not correspond to a map. Instead, it makes a place from the in-between that sounds neither the knuckles nor the walls and neither the fingertips nor the metal pole, but the ephemeral space and time between them.
In this way the work does not make a cartography in certain lines but from interactions, from pushing against each other and sensing the indivisible volumes of sound that this creates. This is a geography of the encounter and of the in-between, where unstable connections and unreliable contacts make a path. It carries information about the place that I can inhabit in its possibility but that remains an impossible territory to map.
Leandro Pisano: I am very interested in this distinction you make between geography of sound and sonic geography. Can you better explain your thoughts on that difference?
Salomé Voegelin: Yes, this might seem a subtle almost insignificant distinction but I think it is very important. To me a sonic geography puts the sonic, as material and concept, into the service of geography. It practices an interdisciplinarity where sound is employed within the conventions, methods and infrastructures of geography: to sound a map, to add a sonic dimension to its measure and representation. This is very interesting and can lead to important new insights within geography, but it does not question the discipline itself. It is a geography still always of recognisable territories, lines and boundaries, that does not upset but only augment and complexify the map and a cartographic thinking. By contrast, or additionally, a geography of sound has a further reach. It does not sound visual territories but their unseen possibilities. In that sense it is a geography of sonic possible worlds, that are the worlds that are invisibly part of this world, that are its variants and unseen layers, existing simultaneously with what we perceive to be our actual world but that we cannot access through normative orientations and expectations. And so a geography of sound has to lean into the possible to stretch what we can and want to include in a cartography of the invisible. This geography of sonic possible worlds ultimately enables a different and plural imagination of what there is and where things are, and so it provides a different focus and demands a different vocabulary of how to speak of the physical organization of this world in its plurality.
Thus, a geography of sound can include in its imagination the possibility of the uncharted and the unrecognisable that exists within and next to what we know and are willing to include. And it can also stretch to impossible territories, the unknown lands for which we have no names and that we fail to hear but that might still be there, at the threshold of our audition. Thus, a geography of sound makes performative maps of the unseen and has the potential to reconsider the geographical terrain, its limits and its infrastructure of representation. As instead of adopting sound to the lines on a map it rethinks the relationship between the representation of the world and its possibilities and provides a plural view of its organization.
However, this geography of sound does not create a parallel or unreal world. instead, it makes accessible the complexity and plurality of this world, sounding that which finds no representation on conventional maps. In this way it includes the in-between and the co-dependence of interbeing, to map a world from its multiple dimensions and the contingency of its performative depth.